When Jorge Luis Borges was a young man of insufficient means and eager for an intellectual fix, he acquired the peculiar habit of traveling, each night, to the Biblioteca Nacional and selecting at random a volume of the Eleventh Edition (1910–11) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he would read with the same spellbound attention one might pay a good novel. For Borges and millions of others, the Eleventh Edition, in contradistinction to the editions that came before and after, was, as Borges claimed, “meant to be read . . . because those articles were really monographs, really books or short books.”
This was by design. The Eleventh was conceived as an “organic unity,” in the words of the prefatory note to the 29 volumes. It would be published as a complete set (rather than sequentially, over the course of years), and would deliver to the English-speaking public “all extant knowledge within the reach of every class of reader.” Denis Boyles’s new book is a thorough and engaging telling of the Eleventh Edition’s conception and birth, midwifed by an eclectic group of madcaps who succeeded in producing a literary treasure the likes of which will never be seen again.
To understand the importance of the Eleventh Edition in particular, and the Britannica brand in general, it is helpful to recall the period of its publication. Boyles writes that the Anglo-Saxon world, with its supreme confidence in rationality and belief in technological progress, was shifting from “Victorian anxiety” to “Edwardian certainty,” and the latter was a perfect time for the world “to be mapped, examined, improved, and explained.” The Eleventh Edition was “a 40-million-word preamble to a whole new century.” A direct heir to the Ninth (the Tenth was “supplemental”), which was published serially between 1875 and 1889, the Eleventh Edition was a “logical consequence of earlier Britannicas,” but was sold, decisively, in one fell swoop, and accompanied by a classified table of contents — a reflection of the editorial belief that knowledge could be presented, as Boyles notes, “in a systematic, clear, and final statement of what was correct and what was incorrect, what was true and what was not true — which is, of course, very close to a moral claim of being able to decide what’s right and wrong.”
Subsequent editions of the Britannica would, like the uncertain world they reflected, read less authoritatively, condensing information into shorter and shorter entries, and, like many great print publications, it would fade into obscurity. Today, there is a particular online encyclopedia that every schoolchild and mid-level manager rushes to when a paper he has not bothered to write ahead of time is due, but it is not the Britannica. That encyclopedia contains over 5 million entries (the Eleventh had 40,000) and has the particular democratic quality — or perhaps defect — of being edited by you, the reader, rather than a specialist. Suffice to say, the difference in quality between this online encyclopedia and the Eleventh Edition is evident to anyone who cares to make a judicious comparison.
Though the production of the Eleventh Edition required 64 editors, shepherding 1,507 contributors, from 146 colleges and universities, in 21 countries, the true driving forces behind it were just three men: editor Hugh Chisholm; adman extraordinaire Henry Haxton; and publisher Horace Hooper. Of the three, I believe Haxton stands out as most crucial to the success of the Britannica brand, for it was his advertising copy, delivered through massive direct-mail campaigns (targeting potential buyers through information derived from “reader challenges” in the Times of London), that helped sell the concept that owning a Britannica was, in Boyles’s words, “an educated English person’s duty.” In the text of Haxton’s first Times advertisement for the Ninth Edition, we get a glimpse of the sort of rhetoric that would go on to help the Eleventh become the first encyclopedia to sell 1 million sets:
To the casual inquirer it presents all the advantages which a library of a thousand chosen volumes yields to the trained scholar who is thoroughly acquainted with each of the thousand: . . . the essence of all books, ancient and modern, prepared for convenient use. . . . The Encyclopaedia Britannica is not a mere aid to memory, to be hastily consulted in moments of emergency, but it is . . . A Library in Itself. . . . The Literary Quality of the Encyclopaedia gives it a rank among our classics.
In this same vein ran ad after ad in England and America, shocking the newspaper-reading public, which was unaccustomed to the bombardments that greet the modern reader on each page of his daily. As distasteful as many found the Britannica marketing blitz to be, the Times, in desperate need of money and financially buoyed through its partnership with Britannica, allowed the advertorials to continue in its pages until — just before the publication of the Eleventh — infighting between Hooper and a business partner forced the Britannica to find a new publisher (Cambridge University Press).
The Britannica had already been in existence for 143 years. Just over a hundred years after the publication of the Eleventh, the world’s most celebrated encyclopedia would cease print publication. Since 2012, it exists only in an online version.
That the success of the Britannica depended so heavily on shrewd marketing techniques teaches two lessons posterity can take to heart. First, as with the Swiffer in your kitchen, it is possible to sell the public on almost anything — even a collection of books that, just as previous editions had been, would certainly be supplanted by later ones. Second, and more important for the culture warriors bemoaning the degradation of the academy or Oprah’s book selection, people, if led correctly, take an interest in understanding the world around them. And so much the better if the information comes from the sagacity of an Arthur Eddington rather than the vanity of a Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Finally, while I would have liked Boyles to expound more on the substance of the Eleventh than on the history leading up to its publication, his book performs an equally useful function by priming the reader to go out and get his hands on a set that, as was once remarked about another book, is “an enchanted forest, and hence also an enchanting forest.”
– Mr. Bahr is the assistant literary editor of The Weekly Standard.